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Are you still waiting on this year's IRS refund? It may be late because the IRS never finished last year's returns

The U.S Government Accountability Office says the IRS is still missing staff and still doing last year's tax returns as it tries to tackle your refund.

BELL COUNTY, Texas — Johnathan Smith tried to do everything right to get this year's tax return as fast as possible. He filed early in the first week of February, filed electronically and selected direct deposit. 

Smith still hasn't gotten his return, he doesn't know when he can expect it and he has spoken the to IRS five times to try to find out why. He said thousands of people are in the same situation and have gotten the same message from the IRS website. 

"The progress bars are going to disappear and then it's going to say 'we are still trying to process your return, a refund date will be provided when it's available,'" Smith said. 

Smith said IRS representatives have told him there was an error on their end, that his return was in the "Errors resolution department", that there was nothing wrong and his return was being processed and that the IRS was "Severely understaffed and behind."   

That last response turned out to be true. The agency is still processing tax returns from 2020, though the agency wouldn't say that Thursday.  

"I don't have any information on the present time on any refund delays," IRS Spokesman Clay Sanford said. "Of course most refunds are issued within 21 days. There could be problems with certain returns. If folks don't sign their return when they send it in."

Less than two weeks ago, however, the U.S. Government Accountability site had already found several issues causing a delay. They detailed the issues in a report titled, "Actions Needed to Address Processing Delays and Risks to the 2021 Filing Season." 

GAO Director of Strategic Issues Jessica Lucas-Judy told 6 News Thursday that the IRS had fallen behind on paper-filed returns among other issues. 

"One of the many challenges facing the IRS this year is that they are moving into the 2021 filing season that we are now in, still with a backlog from 2020. Most of the returns were taken care of but there are still ones in process," Lucas-Judy said. "Last we heard they were still working on things dated as early as July."

Lucas-Judy said the IRS is working to process past and current returns at the same time. 

The IRS had to shut down many offices and send employees home in March of 2020. Lucas-Judy told 6 News 25% of the processing staff was still on leave for safety purposes at the end of 2020 and many continue to be on leave as of March 2020. Lucas-Judy said the IRS was able to bring some people back to work by social-distancing and by distributing laptops. The GAO report states some IRS staff members, called "Field Assistance staff" were not able to work from home for a multitude of reasons.

"IRS officials described limitations to expanding telework for these staff. Officials stated that prior to IRS’s late March evacuation order, Field Assistance staff were generally not eligible for telework under the national bargaining unit agreement because their core work is to provide in-person assistance," the report states. "IRS officials also said that the information technology systems at TACs are generally configured for staff to work on-site with desktop computers, and staff did not have IRS laptops to work from home. As a result, Field Assistance staff were not positioned to transition from on-site to remote work, even if remote work was available. In October 2020, IRS officials stated that they were upgrading TAC desktop computers to laptops to facilitate telework and working to identify additional remote work for Field Assistance staff." 

Lucas-Judy revealed yet another challenge to working remotely that the public may not expect. She said one of the primary technology systems used to process tax returns was no less than 60 years old. 

"It's 60 years old. It's one of the oldest legacy systems in the federal government," Lucas-Judy said. "One of the long-standing challenges with the IRS is difficulty with modernizing the system. It is difficult to take the system down and replace it with something else. They have to bring in people and train them on older programming languages."  

Lucas-Judy told 6 News e-filing taxes is still the best option for those who still need to do so. It's little comfort to Smith, who told 6 News the last representative he spoke to said the IRS has not processed his return yet and he may need to wait up to 10 weeks.

The IRS provided 6 News additional tips for filing taxes so citizens can minimize problems on their end.  

Gather income documents and personal information

  • Birth dates, Social Security numbers or taxpayer-identification numbers (ITIN) are necessary for filing a tax return. Also, look for Forms W-2, Wage and Tax Statements, and Forms 1099.

Avoid errors. 

  • Taxpayers should take extra time to review their tax returns so they can file a complete and accurate return and avoid refund delays. Filing electronically is the most accurate way to eliminate many common errors. Even so, double check all names, birth dates, and Social Security or ITIN numbers. It’s also important to check your bank account and routing numbers for accuracy if you are receiving a refund by direct deposit.

Choose a good preparer. 

  • People value good tax return preparers for helping them through a complicated tax situation or for being available when they don’t have time to prepare their own tax returns. Paid tax return preparers completed more than half of the tax returns submitted to the IRS in tax-year 2018. IRS.gov has resources to help people choose a tax pro. The IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers provides information on who has a professional credential or participates in the IRS Annual Filing Season Program.

Use Direct Deposit or Direct Pay.

  • The safe and fast way to get a tax refund is to have it electronically deposited into a financial account by direct deposit. For taxpayers who owe tax, Direct Pay is a secure service to pay taxes for Form 1040 series, estimated taxes or other associated forms directly from a checking or savings account at no cost.

Review IRS Publication 17. 

  • This guide covers the general rules for filing a tax return and is available on IRS.gov. The latest edition is now accessible on most personal electronic devices as an eBook.

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